Manipur’s melting pot : Ethnic clashes continue

manipur on boil
Violent clashes erupted in Manipur between the Kukis and the Meiteis (Photo: News Intervention)

On 3 May 2023, a violent clash erupted between two ethnic communities, namely the Meitei and Kuki, in the northeastern state of Manipur. This eruption of violence was in protest of the order issued by the Manipur High Court, which directed the state government to include the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes list of the Constitution as a “tribe among tribes in Manipur”.

The Trigger

The violence began on 3 May after the All-Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM) organized a solidarity march in all districts, opposing the above mentioned order of the Manipur High Court. As the violence escalated on 4 May, the Centre invoked Article 355 of the Constitution, which falls under emergency provisions. This article empowers the Centre to take necessary steps to protect a state against external aggression or internal disturbances. Reports of violence, arson, and mayhem have emerged from various districts in Manipur, including Churachandpur, Imphal East, Imphal West, Bishnupur, Tengnoupal, and Kangpokpi.

The violent clashes have resulted in numerous casualties, with over a dozen reported killed and hundreds wounded. More than 9,000 individuals from the Kuki and Meitei communities, as well as others, have been displaced. The destructive aftermath includes damage to buildings, homes, property, and vehicles. However, there is currently no official confirmation of the exact number of fatalities.

The Cause

To understand the underlying causes of the conflict, it is important to consider the ethnicity and geography of Manipur. The Meiteis, a Hindu community, dominate the valley region, while the Kukis, a Christian minority, reside in the hilly areas. The Kukis benefit from reservations as minority tribals, while Meiteis, despite comprising 64% of the state’s population, are restricted from purchasing land in notified hill areas, occupying only 10% of the state’s territory. The Meiteis’ potential inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category, allowing them to buy land, has upset the tribals.

However, the immediate cause is intertwined with deeper grievances. The government’s crackdown on reserved and protected forests in the hills, along with the Kukis’ sense of persecution, plays a role. Chin people, an ethnic group from Myanmar, have sought refuge in India, including Manipur, due to violence and persecution. The government’s tough stance against these perceived illegal immigrants angers the Kukis, who share kinship with them.

The Chief Minister, representing the BJP, takes a strong stance against forest encroachment, particularly due to poppy cultivation. The government frames its actions as part of the larger fight against drugs but mistakenly applies the term “drug lords” to all Kuki people.

Another factor is the intense competition for land in Manipur. As tribal village populations grow, they encroach into nearby forest areas, which they consider their historical and ancestral right. This conflicts with the government’s perspective. Simultaneously, Meiteis living in the valleys are frustrated by their inability to settle or purchase land in the hills, while tribal communities can buy land in the valleys.

The lack of a clear policy for recognizing new villages and a transparent forest policy in Manipur contributes to resentment, even within the ruling party.

Continuing Violence

Disturbing reports of clashes between Christian tribals and Meiteis have emerged, depicting acts of arson, stone pelting, and the use of weapons. Video footage shows houses being set on fire and instances of people sustaining injuries. Shockingly, there are visuals of armed Christian tribals cheering on the violence. It is alleged that the violence was targeted at driving out Meiteis from Christian-majority areas. The violence, which lasted over a week, resulted in the tragic loss of more than 80 lives. Properties worth crores were destroyed, and tens of thousands of people were compelled to flee their homes.

Manipur’s Chief Minister, Biren Singh Singh, acknowledged that armed militants equipped with AK-47s, M-16 rifles, and sniper rifles had been firing at civilians. Security forces responded with counter-attacks, targeting these militants. According to the CM, in operations and encounters across the foothills of the Imphal Valley where the Kuki-Zomi and Meitei groups converge, 40 insurgents were reportedly killed, and several others were apprehended.

Renowned boxer MC Mary Kom, a resident of Manipur, has appealed to the central government for assistance, highlighting the alarming situation. She expressed deep concerns about the safety of her own house and the state as a whole, emphasizing that nobody feels secure. Mary Kom shared photographs of the violence and tagged Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh in her tweet, urgently seeking their intervention.

Steps Taken

In response to the outbreak of violence during a tribal agitation in Manipur, the army and Assam Rifles were deployed to restore control and maintain peace in the state. The Manipur government has decided to extend the suspension of internet services in the state until 31 May. Union Home Minister Amit Shah visited Manipur, where he engaged with various civil society groups representing the Meitei community in the capital city. It is reported that he will also travel to Churachandpur to meet with representatives of the Kuki community and visit hospitals to meet those injured in the recent clashes between the two communities.

Shah’s four-day visit to Manipur aims to assess the security situation in the state and facilitate dialogue between the warring Kukis and Meiteis to find a resolution to the ongoing turmoil that started on 3 May. During his visit, he held meetings with Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, senior members of his Cabinet, and key security officials. He also met with Governor Anusuiya Uikey.

Efforts are being made to ensure the uninterrupted supply of essential items to Manipur with the assistance of the central government. Blockades by various Meitei and Kuki groups on national highways have severely disrupted the supply of food and fuel, leading to skyrocketing prices. Additionally, it has been decided that a compensation of Rs. 10 lakh will be provided to the families of the deceased, with contributions from both the state and the central government in a 50:50 ratio. There are also discussions about offering job opportunities to the kin of the deceased as part of the proposed measures.

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